Whether stalking a moose or walrus, hunting is way of life for native Alaskan Soldiers
KIPNUK, Alaska -- If Sgt. Burt Paul fails to hook in salmon or track big game, his family could struggle through the harsh Alaskan winter.
Isolated in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region, where soggy tundra makes it impossible to build connecting roads to other communities, his village of Kipnuk is home to around 900 Alaska natives.
The far-flung village, which is about 500 miles west of Anchorage, is only accessible by plane or boat. In the winter, slow and bumpy land routes can open up over frozen waterways.
It's no surprise that prices for basic food items can skyrocket by the time they reach Kipnuk. So, Paul and others must live off of the land to survive by eating moose, seal, walrus, bird and fish meat as well as berries and roots that grow wild in the tundra.
Paul's training with the Alaska National Guard also gives him supplemental income to pay for ammunition, camping gear and boat fuel -- all of which are needed on his hunts.
"Store-bought meat is very expensive," said Paul, an infantryman with the 297th Infantry Regiment. "If I eat from the store, just two or three servings, my paycheck will be gone. If I go hunting and catch meat, like a moose, that would get me through the winter."
On the outskirts of the village is Paul's home, which sits on stilts due to occasional flooding and to prevent it from sinking into the ground when the permafrost melts. Strewn outside the home are snowmobiles, hunting supplies and even the skull of a bull moose he shot last year.
In a nearby shed, he took a seat next to a large net and started to patch it up in preparation for a future fishing trip. Typically, he and others will catch hundreds of pounds of fish that include a variety of freshwater salmon.
"Once they're caught in the net, some will fight their way through and tear the net," he said of king salmon, the largest fish they catch that can weigh around 100 pounds.
As he mended the net, Paul said he joined the Army about 18 years ago as another way to support his wife and four children. Lack of employment in the tiny village can make it difficult to live, he said, even with subsistence hunting.
"In the village, there are hardly any jobs," the 41-year-old said. "There was a bunch of other people in the Guard, including my dad. They were the ones who encouraged me to go."
While he struggled with English since he speaks Yupik, one of Alaska's native languages, Paul excelled in other Army tasks. His hunting background helped him in marksmanship and to thrive in austere conditions.
"On a bivouac, it was just natural because we always go camping out here," he said, smiling.
Across the village, Spc. Raymond Ogoak, who is also an infantryman with the regiment based in Bethel -- located about an hour away by plane -- was at home cleaning one of his rifles.
Both Soldiers deployed together to Afghanistan in 2011 and said the sweltering climate was one of the worst things for them to overcome during their Army service. In Kipnuk, the temperature only gets up to 60 degrees in the summer and then drops below zero in the winter.
Along with learning how to acclimatize to the heat, Ogoak said his military training made him a better hunter. Whether it's low and high crawling over terrain or using camouflage and concealment, he said, the tactics have made it easier for him to sneak up on prey.
The military setting even helped Ogoak, 41, shed his quiet persona so he could become a leader. As a result of his new sense of confidence, he was asked to lead others in his village on potential lifesaving missions.
"I was a shy one; I didn't speak in public," he said. "After I came back from Afghanistan, I became the search and rescue coordinator and started ordering other people."
Safety can be a major concern while at the mercy of the Alaskan wilderness. Advanced health care facilities are far away and serious injuries may require patients to be transported on aircraft, which often face weather delays.
Bear sightings are not common around Kipnuk, but other large animals have been known to be aggressive when threatened.
On a recent hunt, a male walrus once popped out of the water on the side of a small boat belonging to Paul's uncle. The mammal, which can weigh up to 2 tons, then violently punctured his tusks into the boat and flipped it over.
"You have to be very careful and cautious of where they're at," Paul said.
Last spring, Ogoak and other Alaska natives navigated on small boats past icebergs about 10 miles from the Bering Sea coast in search of another walrus. When they spotted an older bull, he and others took aim and fatally shot it from 20 meters away.
"We go out and look for ice because that's where they rest in big groups," he said. "When we do find them or see them with binos, we have to sneak up on them so we can get a close shot."
Villagers normally just take the edible parts of the animal and leave the rest. The penis of a walrus, however, can be dried out and used for another purpose. "We use the walrus' thing down there for a good club," he said, laughing.
One time, Ogoak left a dried walrus penis outside his home. But since the animal part is so effective at dealing fatal blows to seals and halibut, it was stolen by another hunter. "I used to have one and when I went halibut fishing, I used it and with one shot the halibut would not move again," he said.
Alaska natives also collect oil from the seals they hunt, he added, to moisten dry meat that has been preserved.
"It's a tradition," he said of subsistence hunting. "I'm not hunting for myself. I'm hunting for my family and teaching my kids -- so if I'm gone they will know what to do."
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